November 21, 2016

Breakthrough on the Peninsula

Third Offset Strategies and the Future Defense of Korea

This volume is a first attempt to address how America’s Third Offset Strategy could affect security on the Korean Peninsula. The Third Offset is in essence a call for the United States to maintain military superiority through investing in technological, organizational, and operational innovation, allowing it to operate globally in an era of proliferating precision munitions. Since the concept was coined several years ago, however, there has been scant analysis about how the Third Offset will affect security on the peninsula. Kim Jong-un’s acceleration of North Korean nuclear and missile programs makes this more than an academic concern to the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the United States. Pyongyang’s military modernization, both unconventional and conventional, could undermine the current order of extended deterrence and reignite regional conflict. At the same time, the potential benefits of Third Offset technologies not only could help preserve peace and stability on the peninsula, but also support the U.S.-ROK alliance’s global operations.

Policy Recommendations

Having conducted a sustained U.S.-ROK dialogue on the Third Offset, and based largely on the chapters in this volume, the following five policy recommendations emerge for consideration by decisionmakers in both Washington and Seoul. 

  • First, the next U.S. administration needs to formally engage the ROK in sustained Third Offset strategic planning. The implications are too great and the potential dividends sufficiently important to delay alliance consultation. The pace of North Korean nuclear missile development, coupled with myriad other advances, highlights why a Third Offset Strategy is needed to augment both near- and longterm deterrence and defense capabilities for both countries.
  • Second, the U.S. and ROK militaries should concentrate on developing quick hits, such as fully exploiting current technological capabilities, to complicate North Korean planning and demonstrating the capability to fight limited war and shoot down mass missile salvos. Two specific systems appear ready to enhance alliance deterrence and defense. The first is moving forward with wider deployment of the advanced Standard Missile-6 (SM-6), U.S. Ambassador Sung Kim is welcomed to South Korea by U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) Commander General James Thurman and Deputy Commander General Kwon Ho Sung in 2011. USFK is one of the United States’ largest and most important forward presences in the world. (Staff Sgt. Cody Harding/U.S. Army Korea) which can be used both for missile defense and conventional strike. The second is to conduct an early exercise in the next administration to demonstrate the capability of new hypervelocity powder-gun technology. Showing that existing U.S. and ROK artillery and weapons can be retrofitted today to fire smart, hypervelocity weapons provides a quick way of demonstrating to Pyongyang that a mass missile strike could be countered through advanced conventional means.
  • Third, Washington and Seoul should expand the scope of U.S.-ROK alliance planning with respect to technology and innovation. This should include understanding the multifaceted ways in which North Korea plans to use its technological advances in nuclear missiles, GPS jamming and electronic warfare, cyber warfare, and unmanned aerial vehicles. But this also must address the fundamental conceptual and organizational barriers to ROK innovation and acquisition of complex systems.
  • Fourth, U.S. defense officials need to keep in mind that ultimately the alliance is only as strong as its people and intangibles such as trust and credibility. This is especially pertinent in light of Pyongyang’s desire to find political seams and attack public opinion in two democracies that not only focus on military capabilities but must balance alliance cohesion, trust, and assurance. In this respect, no technological breakthrough can substitute for America’s physical troop presence on the Korean Peninsula as a measure of commitment and trust.
  • Fifth, over the long term, the bigger challenge for the United States in preserving its power-projection capabilities is not likely to be North Korean missiles but Chinese anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities. The ability of the United States to move forward on its Third Offset Strategy in tandem with both the ROK and Japan will be the most important dimension of maintaining America’s conventional deterrence in the wider region. Finding ways for the ROK and Japan to build further on intelligence sharing and missile defense also will provide practical means for ensuring network alliance strength amid a changing Northeast Asian security environment.

Korea and the Third Offset

In Chapter 1, Dr. Patrick Cronin and Seongwon Lee expound on the Third Offset and its implications on and off the peninsula. The Third Offset projects to help Seoul alleviate some of the burden of combating a dynamic and nuclear-armed North Korea. By threatening to deploy more advanced technological systems, including missile defenses, the U.S.-ROK alliance can continue to deter North Korea from launching lethal provocations, while also imposing economic and political costs on Pyongyang. This strategic competition with Seoul and Washington will require more technological prowess and investment than Pyongyang is likely to afford. Additionally, the Third Offset will allow South Korea to forge a better security network with other countries in East Asia. Finally, the Third Offset provides an opportunity for closer U.S.-ROK alliance cooperation on research and development.

Of course, there are potential downsides. Some high-technology systems could sharply escalate the scale of a potential conflict. Rising defense costs could force some difficult tradeoffs for the alliance, including U.S. troop presence on the Peninsula. A U.S.-led focus on cutting-edge technology might widen an existing technological capability gap with South Korea, which in turn would provide a persistent drag on the alliance. While all these issues can be managed, they are reminders of the possible unintended consequences of even the most farsighted policies. 

South Korea’s Approach to Military Innovation

The concern over potential technological fissures in the alliance segue into the second chapter, in which Dr. Michael Raska assesses South Korea’s approach to military innovation. The main driver of South Korean military innovation, and a core focus of U.S.-ROK military planners and political leaders, is finding effective ways to maintain deterrence within shifting contingencies that include, but are not limited to, ballistic-missile attack and regime collapse. 

Three pillars – defensive deterrence, the U.S.-ROK alliance, and a forward and active defense – animate South Korean national security policy, force structure, and operational conduct. Since the 1990s, South Korean military modernization aims to respond to the growing North Korea threat, close the preexisting technological and interoperability gap in the U.S.-ROK alliance, and attain a self-reliant defense posture. 

South Korea has pursued two parallel trajectories of military innovation. The first trajectory, external emulation, is shaped by lessons learned from the U.S. military. The second trajectory, internal adaption, is embedded in Seoul’s efforts to minimize disparities within the alliance. 

A lack of operational adaptability, short-term strategic thinking regarding defense management, and a hierarchical strategic culture characterized by interservice rivalry constrain innovation within the ROK military. While South Korea has attempted to address these issues, improved technologies have not been matched by the requisite organizational, and operational innovation needed to deploy the hardware to its greatest potential. As South Korea aims to achieve sustained resource allocation to close the technological gaps between the two allies, it must improve its defense management capacity. 

North Korea’s Offset Strategy

As South Korea and the United States search for technologies that change the balance of power, retired Lieutenant General In-bum Chun admonishes us to remember the old saying that the adversary has a vote, too. As he writes in Chapter 3, North Korea is investing a range of asymmetric capabilities such as smart, longrange munitions that pose challenges to the U.S.-ROK alliance. Through its experiences, North Korea realizes its limits in direct conventional conflict. Instead, Pyongyang has learned that small-unit operations, to disrupt force generation and sustainment operations in alliance rear areas, and deception operations are more effective.

As a result of studying American military history, Pyongyang has concluded that nuclear weapons are essential to achieving victory against the United States. While countering superior U.S. forces with a nuclear deterrent, however, North Korea then might wage asymmetric conflict through the use of special operations forces to disrupt, degrade, and destroy lines of communication, intelligence capabilities, sustainment nodes, and theater mobility assets.

ROK and Alliance Capabilities 

South Korea remains focused on dealing with North Korean asymmetric strategies. Dr. Bruce Bechtol discusses in Chapter 4 how the Third Offset could bolster ROK defenses. Although focused on the future, the Third Offset may have immediate influence on the balance of military power on the Peninsula, which is both necessary and timely, given the extensive military modernization efforts being undertaken by North Korea. 

However, the readiness of the ROK armed forces to acquire, assimilate, and use the cutting-edge technologies of the Third Offset remains to be seen. At a minimum, South Korea and the U.S.-ROK alliance will need to address key political and military challenges affecting the implementation of Third Offset technologies and accompanying concepts of operations to deter North Korea’s increasing and developing military capabilities.

For the United States, failure to project power in and around the East China Sea would likely create spillover effects into the South China Sea.

Building on this theme, in Chapter 5 Dr. Chung Min Lee discusses the strategic ramifications of the Third Offset Strategy for the U.S.-ROK alliance and Northeast Asia. While North Korea remains the proximate threat, there is a concern about expanding Chinese military power on the horizon. China’s growing military capabilities will hinder the United States’ power projection in the 2020s and beyond. The fact that China, unlike the United States, is not committed to projecting power beyond its shores and is free from alliance responsibility tilts the table even further in China’s favor. For the United States, failure to project power in and around the East China Sea would likely create spillover effects into the South China Sea. This also affects how the ROK and the United States would respond jointly to a range of contingencies on the Korean Peninsula. 

Lee argues that, from a South Korean perspective, short-term and tangible applications of the Third Offset will focus on deterring North Korea’s cyber, nuclear, and missile threats while enhancing combined alliance capabilities, whereas the long-term implications of the Third Offset center on the restructuring of forces after unification. 


In Chapter 6, Dr. Mira Rapp-Hooper analyzes the effects of North Korea’s growing missile threat to the United States’ extended deterrence on the Peninsula. 

North Korea may use its ballistic and cruise missiles in attempts to prevail in a conventional conflict against the United States and its allies, either through political coercion or through direct anti-access challenges. Recent tests in relation to the ultra-precision KN-02 Toksa, Musudan IRBM, KN-08 ICBM, KN-11 SLBM, and KN-09 ASBM pose both a nuclear and conventional threat. 

Rapp-Hooper argues that the alliance must show it is able to prevail in a conventional conflict by 1) hardening and dispersing bases in South Korea, 2) ensuring base access in Japan, 3) preparing for combat-credible limited wars, 4) investing in multi-layered missile defense, and 5) encouraging ROK-Japan intelligence sharing. 

Hyeong-wook Boo also focuses on deterrence on the Peninsula. Writing in Chapter 7, he reevaluates the impacts of the First and Second Offset Strategies on Korean security. He then builds on this history to discuss potential concerns of the Third Offset Strategy in light of the emerging security environment. 

From creating a wider technology gap in the alliance, raising sensitive issues regarding the transfer of high technology, and stirring a debate over possible reductions of U.S. boots on the ground, a Third Offset will face many challenges when it comes to convincing Korean officials and the public about the potential benefits of a new, technology-oriented strategy.

In addition to these general alliance challenges, a Third Offset raises important questions about deterrence. These questions center on the weakened links between Seoul and Washington, prompting possible North Korean nuclear escalation, and overlooking critical questions of alliance nuclear capabilities. In addition, while a Third Offset may strengthen the capability to win a war, that capability may come at the expense of undermining the more essential goal of maintaining deterrence. 

Boo suggests that the U.S.-ROK alliance should fully discuss if and how a Third Offset can strengthen America’s extended deterrence.

ROK Space Security 

The Third Offset increasingly relies on outer space, which also happens to coincide with South Korea’s ambitions as a space power. The ROK is concurrently increasingly capable in space, but also increasingly vulnerable as well. In Chapter 8, Dr. Daniel Pinkston examines the status of the ROK’s space program, U.S.-ROK space cooperation, and future challenges to the ROK regarding Third Offset capabilities in the domain of space. 

Space-based capabilities and cooperation with allies will be critical to deploy Third Offset capabilities. The legal and institutional frameworks are being created to support the sharing of space data and intelligence, and combined space operations. There are opportunities and a willingness for extensive bilateral and multilateral cooperation between the ROK and the United States in space security. Bilateral space situational-awareness cooperation can help provide both countries with a better understanding of North Korean space activities and missile launches. Further, the U.S.-ROK-Japan trilateral Pacific Dragon missile defense test in 2016, which relied heavily on space-based assets, demonstrated the potential supporting role of space cooperation in countering North Korea’s mounting missile threat. 

However, Pinkston warns that Seoul will face a dilemma between gaining tangible advantages through U.S.-ROK space cooperation and fearing political friction with Beijing.

Space-based capabilities and cooperation with allies will be critical to deploy Third Offset capabilities.

Throughout the eight chapters in this volume, experts explore important issues regarding the implications of the Third Offset for security on the Korean Peninsula, America’s ability to project power to the peninsula and preserve stable extended deterrence, and ROK out-ofarea capabilities. Further work is needed through official bilateral alliance channels make the Third Offset a core part of alliance planning and to fully tap the potential of Third Offset thinking and technology to deter North Korea in both the short and long run. Provided the Third Offset remains an essential part of U.S. military modernization, it surely will influence both South Korea and the U.S.-ROK alliance.

Chapters in this Volume

01The U.S.-ROK Alliance and the Third Offset StrategyDr. Patrick M. Cronin and Seongwon Lee09
02South Korea's Military-Innovation TrajectoriesDr. Michael Raska23
03North Korea's Offset StrategyLt Gen In-bum Chun, ROKA (Ret.)39
04Strengthening South Korean DefenseDr. Bruce E. Bechtol Jr.51
05Enhancing U.S. Power ProjectionDr. Chung Min Lee63
06North Korea's Missiles: A Precision-Guided Problem for Extended DeterrenceDr. Mira Rapp-Hooper77
07Deterrence: A Korean PerspectiveDr. Hyeong-wook Boo85
08ROK Space Security and the Third OffsetDr. Daniel A. Pinkston95

The full edited volume is available online.

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  • Patrick M. Cronin

    Former Senior Advisor and Senior Director, Asia-Pacific Security Program

    Patrick M. Cronin is a former Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Previously, he was the ...

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